Dear Len & Rosie,
My mother is 85 and has Alzheimerís disease. Her condition isnít that good. She doesnít recognize me. I could be any one of four people to her. A few years ago I prepared a power of attorney form and sent it to her. My daughter was supposed to help her get it signed and notarized, but she never got around to doing it. I have been paying my motherís bills from her bank accounts, which are in both of our names. My problem is that I now need to sell her home to pay for her care, but I donít know how to do it.
Your unfortunate situation is a result of failing to have an estate plan. If your mother had executed a durable general power of attorney when she retained the ability to make decisions, you would be able to sell her home. With a properly drafted power of attorney, you could even create a trust on her behalf to avoid probate or even help shelter her assets from the cost of long term care.
You do not have the legal authority to act on your motherís behalf. Itís OK for you to pay her bills from her joint tenancy bank accounts, because you legally have access to this money, but you canít sell her home without going to court.
You will need to hire a lawyer in the county where your mother lives and file a petition asking the court to appoint you as the conservator of your motherís person (for medical decisions) and her estate (her home and other assets). If you are the only child, and thereís no spouse, you have the highest priority to appointment. A conservatorship petition requires 30 days notice, but you can be appointed as temporary conservator on an emergency basis if thereís an immediate need to get things done.
Conservatorships tend to be more expensive than having a trust and a durable power of attorney. On top of the court filing fee and probate investigator fee, you will have to hire a bookkeeper to prepare an accounting one year after your appointment as conservator, and every other year thereafter. This means you will have to keep meticulous records of everything you do on your motherís behalf. You will also need to ask the courtís permission to sell your motherís home.
Itís a lost opportunity for you, but if your mother had given you a power of attorney, and if she had created a trust to avoid probate, selling her home would have been a lot easier. You could replace her as trustee with one or two doctor letters instead of a court order, depending on the terms of the trust, and your lawyer could have prepared an Affidavit of Change of Trustee to transfer title of her home to you as trustee so you could sell it.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Donít blame your daughter for this. The young do not frequently face the prospect of a death in the family, so they think they have plenty of time to deal with things like this when in reality they do not. In your case, with a conservatorship, you will be able to get things done, but youíre on a much tougher road because you didnít help your mother create a proper estate plan.
Len & Rosie